Whither Civil Society?

What happens when local NGOs want international funds but don't agree with the pro-West, pro-rights agenda?

For the past 20 years, American and European donors (including governments) have worked with and through local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to advance their agendas. This approach is rooted in the political transition of Eastern Europe in the early 90's. When the Berlin Wall came down, Western organizations found ready partners among dissidents, academics, and young people who were eager to remake their societies.

The convergence of domestic aspirations and international interests -- at a particular historical moment -- allowed organizations like mine, the Open Society Foundations, to advance agendas that broadly encompassed Western liberal values.

For the past two decades, donors like us have stuck to this model. The arrangement is pretty straightforward: donors provide money, expertise, and political support; and, local NGOs conduct programs, advocate for certain policies, and report to the international community.

And who can argue with our agenda? Rule of law and good governance are public goods. Independent media and fair elections safeguard the democratic franchise. Education and public health confer broad social benefits at both ends of the spectrum of life.

Unfortunately, the citizenry in many countries where we work doesn't always agree with us on certain fundamental issues, like human rights and social policy. For example, gay rights and needle exchange programs are controversial in the post-communist region, not to mention in more traditional societies around the world.

Donors often assume that engagement with elites (government officials, NGO leaders, diplomats, multilateral organizations, and their ilk) is enough to win the day. This approach leaves out the general public and sometimes ignores inherent cultural values. It also opens our partners to criticism. If NGOs work on unpopular issues, receive funding from outside groups, and lack meaningful constituencies at home, who exactly do they represent? And how will they sustain themselves if funding from international organizations dries up?

As donors have expanded to new geographies, these questions have become increasingly important. They beg for some serious introspection, especially in a few key areas:

Civil society vs. NGOs

Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment and others have long pointed out that NGOs constitute only one element of any country's civil society. Trade unions, religious organizations, and even organized crime networks also represent the activities and aspirations of the citizenry. It's time to find ways to expand our engagement with such groups (minus the criminals).

Legitimacy and Sustainability

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. NGOs are and will remain essential partners for the donor community. However, since they rarely develop their own constituencies, NGOs are easily criticized as paid agents of foreign interests. When they represent the real interests of real people, these groups become much harder to ignore. A base of support matters if groups want to continue their work when international donors move on to other countries.

Moreover, donors also need the legitimacy that local constituencies confer. Without it, we're vulnerable to charges of meddling. And, local support helps nurture our values in the long run.

Other Models, Other Rooms

The NGO model has proved relatively sturdy but has also inhibited experimenting with other approaches to promote social change. As we move into new regions and issues, we must develop fresh ways of engaging with local actors. Authoritarian governments in places like Burma and Russia are hostile to non-governmental activity or seek to coopt it by creating their own "civic" organizations (called GONGOS or government organized non-governmental organizations). In such cases, we need to find ways to support individual activists, fund social movements, or develop channels for the free movement of information and expertise.

As long as donors have money to spend, we will remain on the stage. But without innovation, our influence will wane. The Arab Spring is the biggest political and social movement since 1991. We ought not to be using technology that's twenty years old to make the most of it.